Fluke Fluker is a former Marine sergeant and a basketball player for California State University in Northridge. He has spent twenty-two years coaching basketball at every level from middle school through professional. In 2003, Fluke, now a teacher and coach at Los Angeles’ Cleveland High School, joined with fellow teachers Andre Chevalier and Bill Paden to found The Village Nation, a groundbreaking project aimed at closing the achievement gap between African American and white students. The astounding results achieved by the Village Nation have been reported in major media outlets all over the United States. Fluke and his Village Nation co-founders have been featured guests on Oprah, where host Oprah Winfrey praised the organization by saying, “The Village Nation serves as a leading example for people who think out of the box.” Cleveland High School, the once-failing school that is home to the Village Nation, is now designated as a California Distinguished School. Looking back at the success of the Village Nation, Fluke says, “Our children no longer see themselves as the problem but instead as the solution—they have taken a firm stance in understanding the responsibility that accompanies their culture and heritage.”
Fluke Fluker Speaks
I’m not anyone special. I tell kids I meet today, “I was you and you are me.” I grew up in the projects of Brooklyn. I hated school! I could barely read, but I got bumped along from grade to grade. I had no vision of any future beyond hanging out and being known.
I can’t blame my parents for my attitude. They cared very much. Although my father had just a fifth- grade education, he and my mother both believed in schooling. They prayed and encouraged me. But those seeds of encouragement fell on dry, infertile soil.
I started making the usual stupid choices and hanging with negative people. When I was 17, I got stabbed in a fight. When I woke up, I was handcuffed to a hospital gurney. Trips to court were by now pretty commonplace for me, and I ended up in front of a judge who was, shall we say, acquainted with me. He said, “I do not want to see you again.” In the 1970s, that basically meant “Join the military or I’ll put you in jail.” I chose the military. And given my Billy Badass attitude, I decided to be a Marine.
For me, joining the military was a life-saving experience. I’d always been the guy people would look to and say, “What should we do?” Part of it is my stature—I’m 6 foot 7—and part of it was my God-given athletic ability. I’d been captain of every sports team I’d ever been on. The United States Marines gave me a positive channel for that leadership, a channel that illuminated my natural intelligence and abilities. The Marines gave me the discipline and grounding that I needed for every other aspect of my life. At age 19 and a half, I became the corps’s youngest peacetime sergeant.
After my time in the service was over, I wanted to go back to school. My experience in the Marines had given me a taste of success, and I knew now that I could succeed. I was able to get an athletic scholarship to junior college. But at this point I had to face the fact that that my academic skills were weak, extremely weak. I had to take remedial classes—and I mean really remedial. Here I was, a USMC sergeant, having to sit there with what were basically Cat in the Hat books. It was both humiliating and humbling. My only hope for improvement lay in my acknowledging my strengths and weaknesses and deciding to embrace them both, because I alone owned them. I refused to blame others or to make excuses—these were my issues, and I was going to deal with them. It was later discovered that I have severe dyslexia, a learning disorder which accounted for my difficulties reading. This information was both relieving and enlightening. I was relieved because, finally, I knew the cause of the problem. I was enlightened because I learned about resources and strategies that I could use to compensate for my weaknesses. I had always known I wasn’t stupid, so why was reading so hard for me? But dyslexia—to me, that’s just like being farsighted or nearsighted. There’s no shame in it. Once I was given the tools to overcome dyslexia, I could learn much more easily.
Gradually my abilities improved, and eventually I earned my associate’s degree. I also earned a scholarship to California State University, where I completed a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, which is the study of how the body functions and moves. Later I coached at Cal State Northridge while earning my teaching degree.
Glancing back over my life, you can see why I say I was no different from a lot of kids who end up in jail or in the cemetery. To this day, when I see kids being lured by the call of the streets and making negative choices, I see a part of me. And I yearn to reach those kids, to give them a helping hand. My heart aches within me for that child that used to be me. That’s why I became a teacher.
I’d attended a rough public school in Brooklyn. But in California I did my student teaching at Beverly Hills High School—yeah, Beverly Hills, the fancy place in all the movies and TV shows. Imagine, after growing up in poverty, I landed my first teaching job in an economically and socially upper-class school. Wow, talk about a contrast with what I grew up with. It was day and night, North Pole and South Pole.
I am very grateful that I had the experience of those schools. It was there I saw what all schools should be like and what all students should experience. In a perfect world, every school would have the resources those schools had. Furthermore, every school would have the expectations of kids that those schools had. There were only about eight Black kids there, out of a student body of 2,000. I felt like a sort of missionary. I realized that I was probably the first Black man that these students had ever experienced an intimate and respectful relationship with. I wasn’t the gardener, or a servant, or a bus driver. I was their teacher. And I like to think that because of that, down the road, when those kids are running businesses and a Black man knocks at their door, they’ll be better prepared to open it and see a fellow human being.
While I was physically in Beverly Hills, my heart and thoughts were fixed on other kids—kids who were like me, kids who weren’t going to a top-flight high school and whose teachers didn’t expect much from them. The students I longed to be among every day weren’t the ones with all those resources and opportunities. I’ll always remember one day when I was walking to my car after school and saw a white kid I knew. He said, “Hey, Mr. Fluker. Where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to my second job.” (I always had another job while I was teaching there.) And he nodded and said, “Yeah, I’m going to my second school. Hebrew school.” I asked, “What do you learn at Hebrew school?” and he said, “Aw, nothing. Just about how great my people are.”
That hit me like a hammer. I was, like, wow. He was learning about his own people. Their history. Their legacy. His role in that larger group. What he owed to his ancestors. That’s what the Jewish people do for their kids. And I thought, “That’s the missing piece. We have to teach our kids that they have a legacy, too.”
My heart longed so desperately to save children who were like me that I decided to leave Beverly Hills. When I said I was leaving our upscale high school to teach at Cleveland High School in Los Angeles, a lot of folks thought I should have my head examined. Cleveland was a Title I school, meaning that a lot of the students’ families were poor. It was three times the size of the school I was coming from. I was taking a pay cut, and there were half a dozen gangs active there. But I figured, well, this is where I can make a difference. This is where I’m needed.
Things at Cleveland were pretty much as bad as I’d expected. In some ways they were worse. At the end of every year, we’d go through the process that schools all over America go through. The teachers would get together and the administrators would show us the school-wide achievement scores. The scores were broken down every kind of way—by class year, by gender, by race. Year after year, the African American students’ scores got worse. Soon after I arrived at Cleveland, the scores for Black students were absolutely rock bottom—below the scores of ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Black kids were scoring lower than the students who didn’t speak English!
Can you imagine how this hit us, we African American teachers? We’d sit in those meetings, looking at those scores, feeling embarrassed, angry, humiliated. And confused! Because we knew—I certainly knew—from my conversations with these kids that these scores were not a true representation of their intelligence. So why? Why??
At about this same time, Andre Chevalier, another Black teacher, was taking a master teaching class at the university. There he encountered a similar situation as the scores of African American students were flashed on the board. Being the only Black person in the room, he watched as every head swiveled and every eyeball fell on him, as if to say, “OK, you explain this.”
That same night, Andre called me. He said. “Fluke, we have to do something.” We met for lunch the next day. We called in another Black teacher, Bill Paden. I remember we kept saying, “This has to end right now.”
So we went to our principal, Al Weiner. He’s a Jewish guy, very progressive, very forward thinking. We said to him, “Al, we want to talk to the Black kids, alone. We have some things to say to them that you might want to say but you can’t. We think we can.”
Al had the guts to do what few school administrators would do. He said, “OK. Do what you think is best.” He allowed us to start holding assemblies at the school that were for the Black kids only. The first assembly consisted of every Black person in the school. In addition to the 300-plus students, we had teachers, staff, lunch ladies, bus drivers, custodians. The adults formed a circle around the students. We showed them the test scores, and they were shocked. We talked to them as responsible parents talk to their children. We talked about our anger and frustration. We talked about our fears and our concerns. We talked about our love for them.
That was the beginning of what has grown into the Village Nation. The name is taken from an old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In a society where that village has been lost, we try to fill that gap. We, adults and students, have banded together in mutual caring and respect to raise each other up.
It’s not always pretty. It’s not all warm and fuzzy and group hugs. Raising children properly means telling them the truth, and the truth isn’t always easy to hear. It means being really straight with a kid about how he’s contributing to his own problems. But it’s done in an atmosphere of love. Love equals discipline, and vice versa.
Going back to my story about the Jewish student going to Hebrew school—one of our priorities is educating kids about Black history. Not just the history of slavery, but their rich history as Kings and Queens. I’m astonished sometimes how little kids know about their own story. Not long ago I was walking down a hallway to give a lecture about the Jim Crow era. I stopped to talk to a young brother, and I dropped a book, which opened to a picture of a Ku Klux Klan member wearing the full getup—the sheet, the pointed hood, the whole thing. And the boy said, “What’s that? Why’s that fool wearing a hood?” I called a young sister over and showed her the same picture. She said, “Is it a Halloween thing?”
Can you imagine a Jewish seventeen-year-old not recognizing a swastika? Not knowing what it meant?
So I see a big part of our job as teaching our young people their story—the good and the bad.
Sometimes we are criticized for holding meetings that are for Black students only. I say that’s crazy. The African American community is in crisis. Our kids are dying in the streets. They are incarcerated at record rates. We’ve lost one generation and are in the process of losing another. And you criticize me for segregating them for some honest talk? Are you kidding me? It’s what any family would do. If you had three children, and one of your children was sick, and you stayed home to nurse that child, would that mean you didn’t care about your other children? Of course not!
And that’s what the Village Nation is—it’s a family. Sometimes a family needs to do its dirty laundry, and you do it in private. You do it where it’s safe. For instance, we Village elders travel around and do an assembly on the “N” word that is for Black students only. We talk about how the word evolved. How it was used to dehumanize Black people, making them subject to lynchings and other treatment that no one could justify doing to a human being. Today our young people are calling each other by that word—calling themselves by that word. We don’t say to the kids, “We demand that you stop using this word.” But we give them information and ask them to wrestle with the question, “Why would you use this word?” We would not hold that assembly with a mixed group. The tension would be too high. No one would feel safe— not the Black kids, not the other kids. It’s like talking to a group of young girls about feminine hygiene. You wouldn’t do that in a group that included boys. That kind of segregation isn’t anti-white, or anti-Hispanic, or anti-anyone. It’s about talking about things that need to be talked about in an atmosphere that’s safe.
The Village Nation is in its fourth year now at Cleveland High School. And you know what? We have closed the achievement gap. Closed it. The first year of our existence, the African American kids’ scores on the standard achievement tests rose 53 points. The scores are still climbing—this year, they’re more than 140 points higher than they were when we began. In fact, the increase in scores was so dramatic that many schools and school districts want to know our secret. We boldly tell them, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care!”
After hearing about the success of the Village Nation, Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey have asked if we had anticipated our test scores shooting up. We replied that our focus was on the kids making better choices in all aspects of life. Improved test results have been only one of the many great byproducts of kids’ good decision-making.
The Village Nation is about empowering the kids to make good decisions. Kids are always telling me, “I gotta do this, I gotta do that.” I tell them, “No. What I’ve learned in my own life, what I want to pass on to you, is that the only thing you gotta do in life is die. Everything else is a choice, your choice. Beware, young brothers (and sisters), because all choices come with consequences. You have more power than you can possibly imagine—and your power lies in your choices.”